Traditional Public Administration vs. The New Public Management: Accountability vs. Efficiency

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Published in Institutionenbildung in Regierung und Verwaltung: Festschrift fur Klaus Konig, A. Benz, H. Siedentopf, and K.P. Sommermann, eds. (Berlin,Germany: Duncker & Humbolt, 2004), pp. 443-454.

Traditional Public Administration versus The New Public Management: Accountability versus Efficiency James P. Pfiffner George Mason University

The development of the classical model of administrative owes much to the administrative tradition of Germany and the articulation of the principles of bureaucracy by Max Weber. The development of modern bureaucracies made possible the industrial revolution and the breakthroughs of modern economies. But at the end of the 20th century that classical model of public administration was challenged by what has been called the “new public management.” This chapter will characterize the “traditional” and the “new public management” approaches to public administration and then compare them on three fundamental questions that every theory of public administration must answer: 1) what shall be done, i.e. policy direction; 2) who shall do it, i.e. personnel management; and 3) how to enforce compliance, i. e. accountability. The conclusion will examine the tension between accountability and efficiency in traditional public administration and the new public management in answering the three fundamental questions posed above. I. Classical Public Administration The traditional model of public administration rests in important ways on the articulation by Max Weber of the nature of bureaucracy. Weber emphasized control from top to bottom in the form of monocratic hierarchy, that is, a system of control in which policy is set at the top and carried out through a series of offices, with each manager and worker reporting to one superior and held to account by that person. The bureaucratic system is based on a set of rules and regulations flowing from public law; the system of control is rational and legal. The role of the bureaucrat is strictly subordinate to the political superior. Max Weber described the role of the civil servant and the importance of hierarchical control in a bureaucratic system: To take a stand, to be passionate . . . is the politician’s element . . . indeed, exactly the opposite, principle of responsible from that of the civil servant. The honor of the civil servant is vested in his ability to execute conscientiously the order of the superior authorities. . . .Without this moral discipline and self-denial, in the highest sense, the whole apparatus would fall to pieces.”1 While the system which Weber observed in Germany developed over several centuries, there was a parallel development of bureaucracy in other countries during the industrial revolution.2 This model of bureaucracy was crucial to the development of large scale enterprises, private or public, throughout the developed world. 1

In the United States public administration Woodrow Wilson, later to become president, contributed to the traditional model by arguing for the separation of administration from political policy making. According to Wilson, citing as authority “eminent German writers,” “. . . administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.”3 Wilson was one of the main proponents of the politics-administration dichotomy which has been much reviled by later public administration scholars, but which has often been misunderstood. Those who dismiss the concept as obsolete take it as an empirical assertion about how administration works in practice. They observe that in fact, many high level civil servants have an important impact on policy, and thus dismiss the dichotomy. The real importance of the politics-administration dichotomy, however, has to do with its normative implications.4 That is, the principle implied by the dichotomy is that elected...
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